Ask the Image Expert

Sherry Maysonave is the founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, one of America's leading communication-image firms. Sherry conducts corporate seminars and coaches executives, professionals, and politicians in achieving excellence in communication and image. She is also the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success

Should I dress down?

Question: I am a 33-year old lawyer at a major law firm that has recently gone Business Casual 7 days a week. I will be returning from a year's maternity leave on a part-time basis. Despite the long leave and part-time schedule, I'm serious about my job and plan to keep it. I also want to take advantage of the new casual attire! What clothes will project an image of seriousness, stylishness and comfort? I am especially hung-up on shoes.

My first attempt at an outfit is a slim-fitting long black knit skirt with a coordinating black and white/grey striped t-shirt in the same fabric. I don't know what shoes to wear or if this outfit is not right. Help!

Answer: Hello Susie,

First, investigate if your law firm has a dress code listing the preferred level of Business Casual attire. Since you have been gone for a year, a dress policy may have been issued during that time. Even if it's the word-of-mouth kind, take note of the details. To command respect and convey professionalism, I recommend that you stay on the dressier side of the suggested casual attire regardless of what your cohorts are wearing. Since you have been away and you are returning on a part-time basis, it is especially important that you reestablish yourself with your image "Powered Up."

The slim-fitting long black knit skirt certainly gets my vote "IF" it is a jersey knit, not a cotton knit fabric. The white/gray striped T-shirt is too casual for a business setting. Yes, it's casual, but it falls into the Sporty Casual range which is not appropriate for a business environment, especially for an attorney serious about her career. Instead, choose a solid-color long-sleeve top in the same fabric, or a semi-fitted blouse, or a twin-sweater set. Also consider adding a tailored jacket if you opt for the blouse or knit top. The jacket can be placed on the back of your office chair, but it remains handy for meetings.

Stick with closed-toe closed-heel shoes worn with hosiery for a Business Casual setting or you risk looking as if you are dressed for social occasions. Shoes with a 2" heel or slight heel are always more professional than flats. In extra-warm climates, mules (closed-toe open-heel shoes) are sometimes acceptable in the summer months when worn with long skirts or pants. Shoe styles with high throats (those that end higher on the top of the foot) are better suited for pants or long skirts, not short skirts.

Remember, a business environment always demands a certain level of professionalism!

Good Luck,
Sherry Maysonave

Also see:

  • Should I dress down to fit in better in my workplace?
  • Should I buy new post-pregnancy clothes?
  • Ask your image questions
  • Personal Power: A case study from 'Casual Power'